Uncovering The Virtual Reality Secrets Of The Empire
I’ve been a fan of location-based entertainment ever since I was a child ho bought a book at Disneyland on the making of The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction and dreamed about becoming an Imagineer, one of the creators of Disney theme parks. Unfortunately, after joining The Walt Disney Company as its first in-house video game producer, I was unable to convince the head of Research and Development at Walt Disney Imagineering to bring me on to help make the theme park attractions more interactive. Since then I came close to working on location-based entertainment – including designing puzzles for an Escape Room start-up, but I never could make the transition from video game designer to theme park designer. So, I took comfort in the fact that the level of immersion and interactivity we achieved in video games couldn’t easily be replicated in real-life locations.
Well, I can’t make that rationalization any more, having just experienced The VOID at the Glendale Gallery, one of five locations that this franchise of mixed reality entertainment attractions featuring maze-like “stages” where groups of one to four visitors use a combination of virtual reality head-mounted display and computer backpack with motion tracking, haptic feedback and 4D special effects systems to explore and interact with a physical location overlayed with a virtual environment.
Last Wednesday I booked a 10:30am reservation for The VOID’s latest VR experience, Secrets of the Empire, a collaboration between The VOID, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light & Magic’s immersive entertainment division, ILMxLAB. When I arrived, the employees verified my registration, had me sign a waiver, and put a bracelet with a QR code around my wrist. This bracelet, they told me, would be used to connect me to my VR experience.
My hosts then led me into a room to watch a briefing video of Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story assigning me to a stealth mission to infiltrate an Imperial base on the volcanic planet of Mustafar, which I excitedly remembered was the location of Darth Vader’s castle. My mission was to disguise myself as a stormtrooper, travel aboard a stolen Imperial shuttle to the Sith Lord’s base, and retrieve an important artifact housed in a container in the storage area. It sounded like a simple enough task to me! Let’s do this!
My next stop after the briefing ended was a room where I was outfitted with a custom-made Rapture headset with a 180-degree field of vision, custom optics, Bang & Olufsen headphones, and microphones so that group members can talk to each other. I also wore a vest with a computer in its back so that there were no cables tethering me to the experience, leaving me free to walk around as I pleased. I found the headset to be light but the vest to be fairly heavy. Both were easy to adjust, and eventually I almost forgot that I was wearing them. Once my VR outfit was secure, the employee scanned my bracelet and VR vest together, linking my accounts with my outfit. If I had been with a group, he would have had me “customize” my stormtrooper avatar by choosing what color I wanted my shoulder pads to be so that my teammates could identify me.
He then led me into a small room that was the entrance to the stage. He instructed me to flip down my visor and look at my hands. At first I only saw black through the goggles, but after he made an adjustment, I found that I was looking at what appeared to be my hands and arms covered in stormtrooper armor. I was impressed to see my virtual fingers move in synch with my real fingers (albeit with a slight lag), a level of detail that would prove useful in the middle of the mission. I later learned that my virtual arm motion was made possible due to a Leap Motion module mounted on the front of the Rapture headgear that tracked my hand and arm movement. Unfortunately, the range of tracking didn’t allow the system to render my legs and feet in the virtual world when I looked down, which did break the immersion a bit for me.
I suddenly heard a door “woosh” open behind me, and as I turned around, I saw a walkway stretched out before me, leading to an Imperial shuttle. When I walked into the shuttle, there was Rogue One’s K-2S0 droid (voiced by Alan Tudyk) looming over me, looking as real as if the droid were actually standing next to me. He ordered me to sit down, and I was excited to feel the floor and seats vibrate as the shuttle jumped to lightspeed.
Soon the ship arrived on the molten planet of Mustafar, and the door opened again so that I could walk out onto a skiff waiting to take me to the based. As I boarded the hovering platform, I could feel hot air being blown against my face, and the floor vibrated again as the skiff moved slowly towards the base landing platform. Although I knew that I was really safe and sound in a small room, I felt as though I might actually fall into a fiery pool of lava if I leaned over the skiff’s edge too far.
After docking at the base, I boarded an “elevator”, which I activated by pulling on a real physical lever placed in the room in the exact location of the virtual level. The elevator’s movement, however, was an illusion that was completed by another vibrating floor under my feet. I reached out to one elevator wall and touched the real physical wall of the stage, but when I reached into the opposite wall, my arm went through it. This, I guessed correctly, would be the direction of the elevator exit when we reached the bottom floor.
K-2SO cautioned me over the headsets to be discrete as I explored the base so as not to attract attention from the real stormtroopers. I soon walked into a storage room where blaster rifles were hanging on a wall. (In real life, they were actually just wooden guns with triggers, but through the visor, they looked like the real thing). I didn’t need any instructions to know to pick one up. However, apparently I was expected to try shooting my blaster immediately, because when I didn’t after a minute or two, a blaster went off behind me, setting off alarms and causing K-2SO to admonish me for not being discrete.
As I moved through the base to shoot at storm troopers, the area seemed much larger than the VOID’s floor space at the Glendale Gallery. Apparently, the company’s founder is, like me, a magic enthusiast who used hiss knowledge of direction to employ illusion-based techniques used are redirected walking, which is used to give the illusion that the user is traversing a larger path in a straight line, but is actually walking through a curved hall. Redirected walking, in combination with backtracking to previous locations in which the same physical hallways and walls represent different locations in the virtual space, provides the illusion that I was traversing a location larger than the stage itself.
My rampage came to a halt when I ran came to an impassable closed door. Thankfully, K-2SO was there in a control room behind a glass window to give me a code for opening the door. This involved me remembering a series of colored button he lit up on the control panel before me and then pushing them in the same sequence. This Simon-like puzzle seemed out of place in an action-adventure, and I surmised that it was used to slow me down so that I would be separated from another group that was in another part of the maze. A minor problem is that the virtual reality buttons were a couple of inches to the left of where the real buttons were, but it wasn’t enough of a discrepancy to repeat back the three sequences required to open the door. (I also learned later that there was an alternate way to open the door for those who prefer action to puzzle-solving, and given that I was doing this as a “solo” experience, that alternative should have occurred to me.)
When the door opened, I found myself staring out over a balcony overseeing a lava lake with a seemingly infinite amount of stormtroopers firing at me (although I’m sure their numbers were limited by the amount of time I was allocated to be in that part of the attraction). I shot from inside the corridor for cover, until I felt a gentle push at my back. I realized my earlier hunch was correct, and a VOID employee was nudging me forward into the next “room” so that he could close the physical door and separate me from the group behind me. (My guess was that the employee was with me, but invisible the whole time, not just to make sure I was progressing ahead of the next group of customers, but also to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself or vandalize this very expensive set-up).
After a couple more “shooting gallery” experiences, I found the artifact in the storage room, leading to the inevitable boss battle. You don’t have to think too hard about who the boss enemy was. Thankfully, the Force was with me, and I made my escape.
So, was it worth it? Well, I was amazed by the level of immersion, but the graphics, displayed on a 2K resolution OLED, weren’t quite as good as those of today’s AAA video games. The overall experience cost $30 for 30 minutes (including mission briefing and gearing up), so it is more expensive than going to the movies or even to a theme park. When I returned to the lobby, VOID also tried to hit me up for more money to buy a digital ($10) or framed ($15) photo of me in my VR gear, but I declined. But when I got home, I received an email from VOID with a Wanted Poster of me with a photo of my character as if taken from a security camera. It also listed my crimes as done in the game, as well as the bounty the Empire placed on my head.
Again, was it worth it? Even though I can see some improvements that could be made in the Secrets of the Empire experience, its production values far exceeded my expectations of a shopping mall “theme park” experience, and I had a blast. I just learned that Disney and The VOID are expanding their partnership to bring a Wreck-It Ralph experience to locations this fall as well as an unnamed Marvel experience in 2019, and I can’t wait to try both to see the next advancements made by the VOID and its collaborators.